October 17, 2011

"Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde"

The Victorian era in Britain was an extended period of peace, prosperity and social change. It was also a time when culture, morality and the arts shifted from the confines of the established rules of ornament toward a new ideal of beauty. One of the most enduring of these rebellions was the Aesthetic Movement, begun in 1860 and thriving until the end of the century with the passing of Queen Victoria and the beginning of the Edwardian era.

Now on view at the beautiful Musée d'Orsay here in Paris is a very special exhibition that brings together all facets of the applied and fine arts, from furniture and decoration to painting and sculpture, in celebration of "Art for art's sake". What set this movement apart from prior stylistic conventions was the idea that paintings should be painted only to be beautiful and likewise one should be surrounded only by beautiful things. In short, the founders of the Aesthetic Movement sought to create an environment of beauty first and foremost with practicality a secondary consideration.

What grew out of this unorthodox way of thinking was a style that emphasized the exotic (Japan had just been opened to the West and Oriental objects were all the rage), the antique (excavations at Troy and Tanagra had unearthed archeological treasures) and the sensual (think beautiful, half naked women and men). It was unlike anything in the past yet drew very much on history for inspiration.

For me, the real joy of this exhibition was the variety of works on display. Beside beautiful paintings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Leighton and one of my favorites, James Tissot, there was all manner of household objects and decoration. Wallpapers, dresses, jewelry, metalwork, tea sets, furniture, fireplace surrounds and book bindings, all in the spirit of creating the "House Beautiful". Exotic motifs abounded with peacocks, Chinese vases, tropical fruits and flowers adorning the most utilitarian of objects to create something that was far more precious then its intrinsic value would suggest.

Perhaps the most representative symbol of the Movement was the ultimate Aesthete and first celebrity style guru, Oscar Wilde. Foppish in behavior and appearance, Oscar Wilde became a lightening rod for all that was considered "unhealthy" or "strange" by critics and he was finally prosecuted and sentenced to two years in jail for homosexuality. Sadly, the culmination of what had been a movement for beauty deteriorated into a movement for decadence and soon the fashion turned toward Art Nouveau and the styles of the new century. The Aesthetic Movement's time had come and gone but it remains a golden age in British design and marvelous subject for an exhibition! "The Cult of Beauty" is on view at the Musée d'Orsay until January 15, 2012 and then it will travel to San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum.

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